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What is Nappa Leather in Cars?

By Zac Estrada | June 9, 2023

Nappa leather is a widely used term for exceptionally smooth, soft leather. Once a sign of ultra-luxury for furniture, many automotive companies offer Nappa leather seats on cars, SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks. But as all types of vehicles are finding different demographics looking for top-shelf equipment.

Full-grain means that the leather still has its textured surface or that the surface is unaltered. As a result, Nappa leather often retains much of its original texture and look and generally feels soft and luxurious befitting of high-quality leather.

And Nappa leather is usually dyed for aesthetic reasons because it's often tied to more specific vehicle interior color schemes. Some automakers get ambitious with various dyes such as browns, grays, and even more unusual car interior colors like orange, green, and blue.

But its appeal in new vehicles is the richness it's supposed to have over lesser quality upholsteries, elevating the premium feel of any vehicle, from the electric BMW i7 to a Hyundai Santa Fe SUV, even a Ram 1500 pickup truck. Here's what makes this material a cut above.

Quality, Appearance, and Softness

Like most genuine leather, Nappa leather typically comes from cowhides. But some tanners also use hides from sheep, calves, or goats.

And animal hide reflects the quality of its lifestyle, diet, fitness, and illnesses suffered, just like human skin. That's one reason certain automakers only source animal hides from certain conditions or countries that enforce the humane treatment of animals.

However, animals treated well, kept in safe, comfortable conditions, fed well, and received reasonable care often have very clean hides with few blemishes that require less surface manipulation.

However, because there is no standardization among the different types of leather, many often appear on the auto market labeled Nappa when the term technically does not apply. That can make it harder to determine whether it's genuine Nappa leather rather than just called that. And while experts might devote time to determine the leather's origin on an expensive handbag, most people aren't willing to do the same on a $70,000 pickup truck.

Types of leather:

Full Grain:
High-quality, relatively unblemished hides are the most likely to become full or natural-grain leather, but that's not to say full-grain leather is always entirely unblemished.

An artisanal movement prizes full-grain leather in all of its streaked, blotched, blemished imperfection, emphasizing its overall quality and inherent superiority. Unfortunately, full-grain leather is also more expensive to acquire and more difficult to work with, so it commands a steep premium as an option on cars.

However, full grain is the highest quality leather because it comes from the hide's top layer and makes the most of the animal hide's natural grain. In addition, full grain has the most densely packed fibers, making it highly durable, which is why it's more likely to be found as a high-end option for trucks and SUVs.

Even though it's dense compared to other hides, full-grain leather is very soft and supple. It's also usually expensive and lasts a long time, which makes it appealing for ultra-luxurious models from Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin, and Mercedes-Benz, among others.

Top Grain:
The term "top grain" can be confusing because it implies the hide's top layer. But that's not exactly the case. Instead, it starts as full-grain leather, with the outermost layer removed by way of intensive buffing and sanding.

That process takes away many of the imperfections. Then, an embossing process artificially restores the look of a full grain to the top grain leather product. That mainly restores the appeal of full-grain leather.

However, because top-grain leather loses the dense fibrous qualities associated with a full grain, it loses much of that supple quality. It's also thinner, more pliable, and altogether more delicate. And because buffing changes the grain and the texture, the natural durability of the leather is still there. So any full-grain leather removed or altered by sanding or buffing is automatically called corrected grain.

All that considered, some corrected-grain leather still has most of its full grain even after processing because the spots of scars and blemishes have been buffed away. But even full-grain leather sanded and smoothed in places is still considered a corrected grain.

Why do automakers make different leather types so confusing?

Although Nappa leather is typically full grain, some automakers still call corrected grain Nappa leather. Here's where examining the leather for yourself makes the difference. Genuine Nappa leather and corrected grain have recognizable differences in terms of softness and textures, so consider that if having high-grade leather is an important factor.

Full-grain leather is very breathable. It absorbs less moisture and dries quickly despite prolonged exposure to moisture. And it tends to brighten and smooth out as it ages, developing a desirable patina that some feel makes it look worn correctly and more attractive.

By contrast, top-grain leather gets a top coat, making it less breathable than full-grain. And it doesn't age as well as full grain because it never develops that deep, rich color associated with a well-used full grain upholstery.

All of this is why genuine Nappa leather has typically only appeared in high-end trim levels or vehicles. But it isn't the only high-end leather used in automobiles.

Vegetable-tanned and semi-aniline leather are materials you're more likely to come across in an Audi, Jaguar, or Land Rover. That leather usually has a smooth, flat grain without embellishments. Vegetable-tanned leather is also attractive because the organic tanning process preserves more of the hide's original qualities.

These types of leather all begin as the best hides on the market. The resulting product usually ends up in very high-end luxury vehicles. For example, Rolls-Royce started using this process on the upholstery with the Phantom luxury sedan in 2017.

While other premium materials, such as wool blends and synthetic leather, are starting to replace leather in Mini, Porsche, and Volvo vehicles, some consumers still associate leather upholstery with high-end cars. That's why these different types of leather are appearing in various vehicle types today, because it’s real leather or nothing on car seats for some customers.

Nappa Leather: A History

In 1875, Emanuel Manasse came up with the name while working at the Sawyer Tanning Company in Napa, California — hence Nappa leather. At that time, making Nappa leather consisted of vegetable tanning agents and alum salts. Originally used to make high-end and durable gloves that could be dyed in different colors, the material became popular for many leather goods, eventually culminating in wallets, purses, and even briefcases.

And the tanning process has mostly stayed the same since Manasse pioneered the practice for fashion and utility accessories. Today's tanners and other manufacturers use chemicals like chromium and aluminum sulfate before the leather is dyed with water-soluble colorants. That way, the finished product retains its vibrant color for many years, even when subjected to sunlight, moisture, or other wear and tear with typical use.

Since its rise to prominence in many different applications, Nappa leather has become ill-defined in advertising. It can also refer to natural grain or corrected grain leather. Natural grain is another term for full-grain leather, and both refer to a hide with an unaltered or intact surface.

However, a corrected grain is the opposite. It's the product of leather where the surface is removed or buffed. The manufacturers buff the surface typically for aesthetic reasons, to the point where the original grain is all but gone. And in cars, different types of leather work better in various applications, partly why Nappa leather isn't suitable for every vehicle — even high-end ones.